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As you begin to read this article, there are more than 26 conflicts raging in different parts of the world. For the past 3400 years of recorded history, humans have been at war for approximately 92% of the time. This year is clearly no exception, but we can hardly be surprised.
Some scholars and world leaders have long advocated that democracy is the best remedy for the scourge of war. But is the spread of democracy really the key to eliminating war?
My answer to this question is rather grim: the spread of democracy can never fully guarantee the elimination of war. But, before I lay out my pessimistic view, I will acknowledge the claim that democracy can create peace does have some merits.
Why is it that some scholars and world leaders argue that democracy contributes to world peace?
It is noticeable that as democracy has spread around the world, it has brought a wave of peace with it. Inter-state violence has decreased with fewer than 10% of armed conflicts since 1970 being inter-state wars fought for traditional objectives.
Advocates of the democratic peace argument posit that the correlation between the spread of democracy and fewer inter-state wars has a simple explanation: democracies do not go to war with other democracies; therefore, the more democracies, the fewer wars.
Democracies are characterised by norms of peaceful conflict resolution that take place through democratic processes. Such norms apply across national boundaries between democracies. Democratic institutions also restrain leaders, make them accountable to voters and play an informational function that prevents misunderstandings between democracies that could otherwise lead them to war.
But here is where the issue lies. We live in an international system of anarchy. What I mean by anarchy is that there is no authority higher than the state to control its actions and settle conflicts. When states exist in a system of anarchy, war is an inevitable phenomenon, no matter how many democracies exist within it.
Anarchy creates quite a dilemma for states: how can they trust each other not to act aggressively? This is a very justifiable concern for states that have no-one to protect them but themselves. We must expect states to find ways to maximise their power relative to other states to increase their security and to achieve their ultimate goal: survival. After all, the stronger a state, the less likely adversaries will attack it.
State responses to anarchy can create a security dilemma which often leads to war. For a moment, place yourself in the shoes of a state. You may decide to improve your security by increasing the size of your navy to protect yourself against potential adversaries, not for the intention of invading another states territory. To other states, this may signal the wrong message. For all they know, you could be preparing to shift the world balance of power in your favour, which threatens their security. Power competition ensues as other states respond with their own security maximisation. This can spark a disastrous cycle of power accumulation, leading to war in some instances.
What does all this mean for the original question: is the spread of democracy the key to eliminating war? It means that we must not rely on democracy to foster peace when regime type cannot exclude states from being potential adversaries to one another. We must assume that all states are rational actors with offensive military capabilities; democracies included. We can’t always rely on democracies to restrain themselves from going to war with each other when their survival is jeopardised.
In fact, we have already witnessed conflict between democracies. There are several historical examples of them bargaining hard, issuing threats and using military force towards one another in instances when their security was under threat.
In the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, Britain supported the autocratic Arabs in their invasion of democratic Israel. Britain aided the Arabs’ invasion of Israel because the retention of its position in Palestine was strategically crucial. Without its influence in the Middle East, Britain could have lost a focal point of communication, a source of oil and a buffer zone that protected the British in Egypt, all of which were key material sources of power.
Security concerns during the Cold War also motivated the US to intervene and destabilise fellow democracies including Iran, British Guyana, Brazil, Indonesia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Chile. The targeted states all had left-leaning democratically elected governments which Washington perceived as threatening to its containment of communism.
The US clearly prioritised its security concerns over negotiating with its fellow democracies in good faith.
So can the spread of democracy eliminate war? I cannot deny that the spread of democracy will contribute to a reduction of inter-state wars to some extent; history so far has made that clear already. But we must be careful not to consider democracy an absolute guarantor of peace. Security goals will always be a priority for states; regime type will never be able to change that. Yes, democracy’s spread can contribute to peace to some extent, but we must not be surprised when democratic peace doesn’t last between states. It has happened in history, and it can certainly happen again.
- Niamh O’Donnell is a master’s student in international studies at the University of Otago.